The Fighting Weapons of Filipino Martial Arts
By Jay de Leon
Originally Published in WorldBlackBelt, 2004
Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) is a primarily a weapons-based system. While the uninitiated may equate FMA with stickfighting, that is, of course, a misconception, as FMA teaches many weapon systems. An advanced FMA practitioner is very knowledgeable in the use of almost any weapon (for some including firearms, but for purposes of this article, we will exclude firearms).
Depending on the FMA system, most will involve training in the following types of weapons—bladed, impact, flexible, and projectiles. There are, however, a few specific weapons that have come to be associated with FMA, in addition to the obvious stick. Just as there are weapons associated with kung-fu fighters, samurai warriors or ninja assassins, so too are there weapons associated with Filipino martial arts.
Here then are the weapons associated with FMA. Some are obvious, some may surprise you. And even for the obvious ones, here are some factoids and trivia about the weapon, as well as famous users of the weapon.
From the author’s collection.
From top to bottom: wooden sword
– bahi, flat; pair of sticks
– rattan, varnished with design; pair of sticks
– bahi, with etchings; pair of sticks
– kamagong, with etchings.
Even the art of “arnis” itself has been conveniently (and erroneously) called “stickfighting,” so it is only natural that the stick (“yantok,” “baston,” “garote,” or “olisi”) itself is identified as the main weapon of FMA. Most of us are familiar with the rattan stick, around 28” long, varnished or plain, sometimes with some fancy design burnt or etched into the wood. By the way, the etchings have a purpose other than decoration-- they serve as a tactile marker to the user where he is holding the stick. Depending on the style and the practitioner’s preference, the sticks used in FMA have varying lengths, material, heft, diameter, and finish. They may be anywhere from 18” to 44” in length, .5” to 1.5” in diameter, usually made of rattan, but may be made from bamboo or any durable wood as well as the beautiful hardwoods of the Philippines—“kamagong” (“ebony,” a naturally black wood), “bahi” (“palm,” a rich, reddish brown wood with black streaks), etc. They may be flat (to simulate a sword), or whippy (called “patpat,” like the very thin stick Bruce Lee used against Dan Inosanto in “The Game of Death”). Also, bear in mind that the rattan stick is simply a training tool. Some FMA systems actually teach stick techniques using law enforcement and security weapons like the baton, nightstick, and the ASP (expandable metal or aluminum baton).
Some claim that the origin of the “balisong” knife, a three-piece gravity operated folding knife, is not even Filipino, but nowadays, the weapon is identified as and called “Filipino butterfly knife,” not to be confused with the kung-fu butterfly swords. It is the opening, closing, deployment and manipulation of the knife, and the hand dexterity that goes with it, that makes its use fascinating to watch. A few “balisong” experts include Grandmaster Amante “Mat” Marinas of “Pananandata” in Philadelphia, Jeff Imada, Sonny Umpad, and my Grandmaster Godofredo Fajardo and his senior student, Master Nilo Limpin. They know a hundred fancy ways of opening and closing a “balisong” knife, manipulating double “balisongs” at the same time, including aerial tricks. As far as I know, these gentlemen still have all their extremities.
From the author’s collection.
From top to bottom:
chain, weighted chain, whip,
nunchaku, combat tomahawk,
Some FMA systems include training in the whip as part of their curriculum. For example, Sayoc Kali does not only teach the use of the whip, they make and sell their own whips, and really nice ones at that. There are many kinds of whips, ranging from the 60-footer bullwhips to the fairly innocuous horsewhips or “calesa” (horse-drawn buggy) whips. I have ridden “calesas” a few times in the Philippines and not once did I see the driver whip the horse with the “calesa” whip. Instead, they used to it to bang against the buggy, make an infernal racket, and wake up the horse to go faster. The late Mangisursuro Mike Inay of San Jose, CA had a wicked version of the whip. He took a regular “baston” (stick) and tied about half a foot of wire with barbed metal tip at the end. At one of the Gasshuku (training camp) annual seminars, I witnessed Mike Inay and son, Jason, give a thrilling full-speed demo of these whips, going at each other. Other styles use a chain (cadena or tanikala) or the dried tail of a stingray (buntot pagi). Any of these whips become even more dangerous when used in tandem with a knife, as in “latigo y daga,” a variation of “espada y daga,” or sword and knife.
Palm StickFrom the author’s collection.
From left to right :
wooden training knife
– kamagong; wooden training knife
– bahi; wooden training knife
– from Pangasinan; wooden pakal
– kamagong; wooden pakal
– with pointed edges; wooden pakal
– rattan; wooden pakal – bahi, flat; wooden pakal – with pointed edges; kubotan – metal, commercial keyring.
The palm stick (maliit na kahoy, pakal) is similar to the modern day “kubotan” you see people have attached to their keyrings. It is not uniquely Filipino. The Japanese also have this weapon, called “yawara.” I saw this weapon first in the Philippines training in jiu-jitsu (we knew it as combat judo then), as part of our “yawara” training. I then had it in arnis, where it had some nasty variations. Instead of the usual wooden, diamond-shaped protrusion at the end, sometimes razor-sharp blades or metals were inserted. Or it could be made up of carabao (Philippine water buffalo) horn, with points at the end, hence the name “dos puntas” or “dulo-dulo” (two points). As a final note, in addition to this being a very effective weapon, it is also one of the best training tools, with applications in knife as well as empty hands fighting, to improvised weapons application.
Bruce Lee Any Bruce Lee fan knows what a “nunchuku” or nunchuks (also spelled nunchaku or nunchucks) are. Bruce Lee learned the nunchuks from Dan Inosanto. The weapon itself is a farm implement (a rice flail). Just like the palm stick, this weapon is not uniquely Filipino, but has now been identified with FMA. I will give you my personal experience with the nunchuks (tabak toyok) in the Philippines. In my travels in the Philippines, I never saw a farmer flail away at rice with a “tabak toyok.” Either its use was before my time, or I saw “modern” farms only. But I saw many a mean hombre flail away at an opponent with a “tabak toyok.” The weapon was not identified specifically with FMA but with martial arts in general. I remember going to a “shorin-ryu” school and learning nunchuks from students who learned it not from the school but from other advanced students. Somehow, every black belt seemed to know how to use one by the time he got to that level, not sure if it was thanks to FMA.
From the author’s collection.
From top to bottom:
Visayan sword, bolo with horsehoof pommel, bolo with flared pommel, kris knife, kris training blade, “punyal” (thrusting knife), and “balisong.”
The Philippine bolo can be described as either a long knife or a short sword. There are many types of bolo, with different configurations, length, use, and even names—bolo, itak, gulok, tabak, barong. Normally a farm implement, it can also be an awesome weapon, used historically by farmers to settle disputes, by the “katipuneros” (revolutionaries) against the Spaniards, and by the “Bolo Battalion”, a famed military and guerrilla unit, against the Japanese In World War II. I remember growing up in a suburb of the city of Manila, and every household had several bolos—probably at least one in the kitchen, and another one with the garden tools. In case of a fight, I would probably have grabbed the latter one, and the assailant would probably have died of tetanus from the rust and dirt, rather than fatal wounds. I should point out that the Muslim blades, though, were far more serious affairs—many of them designated for the art of war (see next two weapons).
Unlike the bolo, the “kampilan,” the weapon most favored by the Moros (Muslims) of Mindanao, Philippines is solely meant for battle, the equivalent of the Japanese samurai’s “katana”. It is a two-handed, single-edged sword, about 42 inches long, noted for its fearsome look. The hilt is quite long to counterbalance the weight and length of the blade. Most hilts are made of various native hardwood, invariably with a pommel shaped in an animal's wide-open mouth, like a crocodile, or the tail of a bird. Some “kampilans” sport a spikelet at the tip, and feature engraved blades (from late 1800’s to early 1900’s). Just like the Saracen blade of the Moors in Europe, the “kampilans” cut a wide swath of death and destruction in many raids and battles waged by the Moros of Mindanao.
Kris Originally associated with Indonesian culture and its martial art, “pencak silat,” the highly mystical kris quickly became another favorite of the Moros of the Philippines. The kris is readily recognizable by the wavy shape of its blade, which according to animistic lore, is indicative of either a lightning-bolt strike to earth from the heavens or a snake. In fact, the kris was developed as a quick strike (thrust) weapon that was patterned from nature, keeping in mind that in combat, a thrust is considered to be the final or killing blow of bladed combat. As for the combat application of the wave blade, it allows for easier body penetration, makes a nastier wound than a straight blade as it slips easily between bones and through joints, and facilitates retraction for more attacks. For most warriors, the kris was a prized possession, a symbol of nobility, often given a name and passed on from father to son. For FMA practitioners, the kris has become a symbol of mysticism and warrior nobility, as well as a lethal weapon of combat.
Metaphysics or Enchantment
This is a much discussed and debated topic of FMA. Technically, they are not weapons, but to the extent they can protect the owner from harm or wounds, or confuse or incapacitate the enemy, then they become accoutrements or instruments of war or combat. We are talking about amulets or charms (anting-anting) and prayers (orasyones). Amulets are physical, such as human bones (sometimes dug up from graves), special stones, etc., while prayers are special incantations, with spiritual attributes or powers, attributed to God with overtly Catholic references, oftentimes with specific goals, i.e., to confuse the enemy, to make the owner impervious to weapons, etc. The most notable Grandmaster who believed in this was Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo, who carried an amulet and had an “orasyon” tattooed across his chest. It must have worked for him, since he survived a lifetime of death matches and violent street encounters to live to a ripe old age of ninety-three.
From the ancient times to the present, projectiles are one of the most feared weapons, whether in jungle skirmishes, guerrilla ambushes, or in urban warfare. The fear is understandable, for this particular weapon can be launched safely from a distance, from cover or concealment, usually with deadly effect. For purposes of this list, we are excluding hollow points and surface-to-air missiles. This list includes wooden torpedo-shaped darts (bagakays, which you throw by the handful), blowguns (sometimes with poisoned projectiles), bows and arrows (pana), slingshot (tirador), and the modern day dart, favored by urban hoodlums. The latter weapon was made up of less than a foot-long steel shaft, razor sharp at the business end and with a feather at the other end, just like an arrow, launched from a slingshot. While still living in the Philippines, I saw many pictures of victims of this projectile, either lifeless or awaiting surgery, with the projectile embedded halfway in their skulls, the feather sticking out.
As a final note on weapons, the question always arises, what good is it learning some ancient weapon I will not be carrying with me in a fight, anyway. The answer, little grasshopper, lies in the two stones you have to snatch from my palm—improvised weapons and empty hands translation. Got them? Now go to your nearest FMA master for a lifetime of training to learn the meaning of the two stones. Good luck with your training.
Copyright, Jay de Leon, 2004